As blue as her blood

October 25, 1996

Simon Targett meets historian and royal biographer Ben Pimlott, who reveals that, despite recent reports claiming that the Queen is a 'bit of a leftie', our monarch is in fact more of a pre-Thatcher 'wet'

Ben Pimlott? Isn't he the one who thinks the Queen is "a bit of a leftie"? Yes - at least I thought so, having read the reports of his new biography of our venerable monarch. Yet, when I wandered along to his Birkbeck College study in London's Gower Street, he left me with a very different, not to say a completely antithetical, impression.

Elizabeth II, he says, is in "the pre-Thatcher 'wet' Tory tradition", adding that "her position is a sort of paternalist noblesse oblige".

Confused? So was I. But Pimlott, a professor of politics and contemporary history, thinks he has the answer. "She is a bit of ballast in the system. She is the centre. And so, given that we've had mainly Conservative governments, it is quite natural that her centrism has involved her in being more distressed about what has been happening in today's society."

That explains why she seems a little to the left.

And there is another thing. QEII has enjoyed better personal relations with Labour rather than Tory prime ministers because they tend to be "much more sympathetic to the Commonwealth".

So there we have it. The Queen is not a leftie, not even a bit of one, in fact she is more of a Tory, although she liked her weekly confabs with Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan. This is presumably what Pimlott means by "textured history" - and certainly the problem of making sense of natural human contradictions is the main reason he opted to write a biography rather than a conventional academic history.

There are other reasons, of course. A renowned biographer, having published acclaimed studies of Hugh Dalton and Harold Wilson, he admits that "biography is my thing". Also, other historians, including Vernon Bogdanor and David Cannadine, have either finished or nearly finished more obviously academic studies of the monarchy.

Yet biography, Pimlott thinks, is a uniquely creative genre that offers a real alternative to orthodox history, allowing scholars to uncover important truths. "Rather in the way that a novel can give you more of a sense of the period or a situation or an environment than a work of sociology," he suggests, "so biography can convey messages and atmospheres and arguments often better than either narrative or analytical history."

What gives Pimlott's book a peculiarly textured feel is the variety of historical sources, ranging from traditional books and unpublished manuscripts to far-from-traditional off-the-record briefings from Buckingham Palace courtiers "close to the Queen".

He claims the book is an "unofficial" biography, explaining that "the rule has been - and still is - that official biographies of monarchs are not written until after they are dead". It is also the case that there remains an untapped spring of key sources, including a diary which the Queen is supposed to keep.

Even so, Pimlott likes to think that he has exhausted all available sources. As he puts it, with a pertinent metaphor and pukka voice that evokes cricket and crustless cucumber sandwiches and befits a royal biographer, he has "queered the pitch" for the opposition. And certainly, he has enjoyed "pretty good access" to the Royal Archives at Windsor, the BBC's royal collection, and to more than 80 of the Queen's close associates.

So if the uncontroversially titled The Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth II is not an official biography, it is as near as dammit.

And there is a sense that the burden of royal biography weighs heavily on Pimlott's shoulders. All through the book, he is careful not to drop a clanger of a comment, and on the final page, he comes out with the extraordinarily bland observation that "it was difficult to point to major achievements, yet it was equally hard to think of many mistakes".

In other ways, too, Pimlott draws back from the brink of controversy. He succeeded in gaining access to the unpublished papers of Jack Colville, Princess Elizabeth's private secretary who, as Churchill's adviser, helped set up Churchill College in Cambridge. But soon afterwards, the Colville collection was put under wraps, and Pimlott was requested not to publish some of the more "embarrassing" observations.

He might have done a Humphrey Carpenter - publish and be damned. But he did not. Why not? "I could have published, and it's not that I'm not bold enough, it's just that the Palace was being extremely helpful on all sorts of other grounds, and it just sort of seemed like being a dirty double-crosser to go against what they wanted."

Pimlott also treads carefully through the minefield of tabloid stories of sleaze and sex that have long troubled the Windsors. His favourite part - the account of Prince Philip's courtship - does not offer any final judgement on whether the handsome Greek was unfaithful.

He seems to hint that he knows more, but there is a suspicion that he is leaving this for the royal reporters, for the professional scandal-mongers. As he says: "Kitty Kelly will probably blow the lid off everything."

Another factor is that the sleaze and the sex are not the features of Elizabeth's reign that interest him as a historian. Even now, after three years trawling through the gutter press, Pimlott confesses to be "vastly less informed" about what he calls the "minor events" of the royal family "than the average Sun reader".

And it is this, the fact that he has, as he puts it, "sorted out the wheat from the chaff", which means his volume transcends to the realm of history rather than tabloid histrionics. Here, "wheat" stands for "reliable stories", but it also stands for political rather than essentially showbiz stories. For Pimlott, what is important about the British monarchy is its participation in the political world, and on such matters - his home territory - he can be brutally frank and, yes, critical.

He says the Queen badly mishandled the succession of Harold Macmillan. Her "passivity", her open fondness for Lord Home, and particularly her decision "in effect to collude with Macmillan's scheme for blocking the deputy premier" R. A. B. Butler - who had to settle for the mastership of Trinity College Cambridge - was, Pimlott declares, "the biggest misjudgement of her reign".

Another crisis point - during the annus horribilis - was the concession over income tax. A revolution in royal financing it may have been, but it came too late, and while Palace spin doctors tried to suggest it had nothing to do with the rising tide of dissatisfaction with the royal family, Pimlott is unconvinced. "She was effectively pushed into it," he observes, "and she should have been more far-sighted". This criticism gives some teeth to the biography, and means he lives up to his reputation as "a leftwing historian" even though it was the desire "to escape from that particular box" that drove him to take on the project in the first place.

It is certain that doing the biography has been something of a gamble. But, to strike a concluding note of Pimlottian ambivalence, if it won't exactly enhance his chances of getting a gong, it won't much damage them either.

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